cate becker // BLDG

After receiving her masters from University of Cincinnati's DAAP Program in Art History, specializing in Renaissance and Baroque Art, Cate ran the Phyllis Weston Gallery for eight years and co owned a contemporary gallery called PAC Gallery in East Walnut Hills. In 2013 I got the job as the Public Art Director for the City of Covington; I ran Covington Arts and the Municipal Gallery for the city for two years and then came to work as the curator for BLDG in 2014. As anyone who knows her will tell you: Cate is a firecracker, fiercely passionate, motivating, and incredibly encouraging. 

The BLDG Gallery began around 2009 by Mike Amann who wanted to create an unexpected destination for world-renowned street art in the urban core of Covington. Now deceased, Mike was a designer and screenprinter and began doing shows with artists like the London Police, VHILS, Matt Haber and even pull prints for artists like Shepard Fairey and Cleon Peterson. So that’s when the gallery was established. Since then, BLDG has evolved into a multi-faceted creative studio focused on branding, design, fine art and place-making.

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Five-Dots: When was this gallery established?

Cate Becker: 2009.

F-D: How long have you been with this space or in your role as curator?

CB: I’ve worked at BLDG since 2014. I’d say that I have identified as a curator since 2009. It took me a few years to learn the gallery business and understand what it takes to run a small enterprise, to learn the important players and develop my sales abilities.

F-D: Did you take any curatorial course work when you were in grad school?  

CB: Not curatorial classes specifically but took a number of seminars on everything from Giotto to Art & Spatial Politics. The funny thing is though, the term curator has become so overused today. Traditionally curators have PHDs and publish continually, now we have content ‘curators’ and curated cocktail lists. It’s kind of silly really. I guess the question is where do you fall in line? To me the ability to research, conceptualize and select the right artists for a show or project. The real secret sauce then is how to connect that process to the right audience. That’s when the magic happens.

F-D: Who else is on your team?

CB: We have a great team at BLDG. On the art side of the business we have: Creative Director (Partner), Lesley Amann; Business Director (Partner), Jay Becker; Fine Artist, Jarrod Becker; and myself. Since our art project also includes design components we also have a team of killer designers, strategists and project managers.

F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to run exhibitions or did it develop organically amongst the team?

CB: At this point in my career, I’ve worked on approximately 75 shows. At Phyllis Weston Gallery we would put on 10 shows a year. We did 6 shows a year at Covington Arts and here at BLDG we do one in the spring and fall. The role of the gallerist has changed significantly since 2008, I think I identify as a curator because it allows more flexibility in how I can use my interests and strengths and work as an arts professional.  If you're not in a New York, LA, or London, the commercial gallery model isn’t working anymore so I’ve had to change the way I think about it. You have to engage with your community, look at where the opportunity is, and see how can we use those skills to bring opportunity to artists. My process has evolved organically over the years based on where I’m working and what the mission of the place is. However, in that time I’ve developed systems that help manage the process and make it easier to pull off something interesting, relevant and successful. 

F-D: What is this gallery’s main goal or function?

CB: Make cool shit. Make shit cool. 

F-D: Has the location of the gallery influenced your work selection or selection process in any way?

CB: Absolutely, our gallery is located in the urban core of Covington. It’s a place where you have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty sometimes. At that same time, we pound the pavement and get out in the streets. So it’s fitting that street art is part of our DNA. It kind of tells the story of our history. So absolutely the space informs a lot of our decision making as far as who we bring on to projects. 

F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself?

CB: Chaotic but inspiring. Typical days fly by. We’re working on a ton of projects at the moment, so sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of everything. The craziest part is that I come in at 9 am on Monday morning and the next thing you know it’s 6 pm on Friday. It’s like, “where did the time go?” 

F-D: So, I’m assuming, and please correct me if I’m wrong (I also mean this in a positive way) that you prefer to work in a hectic or chaotic environment. . .

CB: I don’t actually. I have the attention span of a squirrel, so chaos can be overwhelming at times. I have a type A personality, so I like organizing and having a plan. From an executional side I think that’s why I really love managing and organizing shows; because I have a template! And things will come up but I have my lists and timelines so it’s all good. 

F-D: What kind of style or aesthetic do you think is most applicable to this space?

CB: We have a really eclectic mix here at BLDG but it’s definitely a lifestyle based-space. We have large scale street art installations by artists like The London Police and Prefab77. But we also have an interesting collection of 19th century equine art speaking to our Kentucky roots. Beyond that we have a huge collection of screen prints, so there’s something for all tastes. 

F-D: Can you speak to the punk / alt iconography that is present?

CB: We love music. So I’d say that a part of that whole lifestyle concept, there is a lot of interesting music. If you come in on any given Monday morning, someone’s Spotify will be playing rap, or indie, or. . . some non top-40 playlist. We have a music studio set up on third floor which one of our designers produces in. But it’s never quiet and I think everyone here enjoys allowing everyone else to have their moment and share their music. 

F-D: It cultivates a culture of sharing. 

CB: Yea, it’s a very collaborative environment.

F-D: Do you think that this gallery has a general thematic preference? Or does it change from exhibition to exhibition.

CB: Conceptually, it stays pretty similar in that we tend to focus on design and urban art.

F-D: So how do you guys, in particular, utilize street art to discuss bigger social issues or ideas within your community?

CB: For us, it’s all about telling a story and for us, street art tells a story that more often than not, people can connect to and engage with on their own terms. Not only that, we understand that public art is a mechanism that brings people together and helps problem solve for communities.  We’re focusing on how you can bring creativity into an area, tell it’s story and evolve the conversation about that area. So, from a real macro picture: we use public art as a mechanism to be a driver for economic impact. 

For example, the Five-Points Alley in Walnut Hills, is an example where we used art to tell the story of the neighborhood. There were two installations we curated; the first was the Wind! on the back of Race Refrigeration building on Gilbert Avenue. We took photographs of local residents, community leaders and business owners from Walnut Hills and installed their portraits in the windows of the historic building. The initial photos were printed on craft paper and sepia toned traditional portraits, but as the wind blew and pulled the paper away, beneath they revealed colorful and fun portraits of the same people having an air compressor blown in their faces. It was a fun and quirky way to reveal the different personalities of the neighborhood and celebrate their character. The second installation, were a series of five murals that functioned as way finding mechanisms into the space. We curated and commissioned 5 designers from around the world to create the different murals. BLDG physically numbers 1 through 4 and then we partnered with ArtWorks to complete the last and largest mural, #5 - We Are Walnut Hills by Morag Myerscough. The idea was to activate the space and bring visibility to the area. 

F-D: What other programs, non profits, or locations do you have strong ties to?

CB: I like to be active within the community and sit on a number of different boards. I’m the promotions chair for Renaissance Covington, a main street program. Also involved with Pones, a movement and dance organization that focuses on creative experiences for the community. The American Sign Museum is a client I work closely with and my husband and I are on The 50. So lots going on. :)

F-D: Can you tell us about your exhibition selection or design process?

CB:  At BLDG, we only do two shows a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Our spring show is called 199C and it’s a baseball themed show held in honor of opening day. We focus this exhibition on local artists and designers and always have a different theme. This year it was Scandals, Superstitions and Screwballs. We close down the street, play whiffle ball, have music and drinks and all that kind of stuff. The idea is to play off of something cultural and fun, it’s a great time and we have a good turn out every year (even when we historically have terrible weather). In the fall, our show typically depends on what big events are taking place. Last year, there was FotoFocus and we brought in a Danish photographer who is documenting the work of street artists from around the world. This year, we’re working on a public project with the CAC and the artist Swoon, she creates some of the most intentional and socially engaged work I’ve ever seen, can’t go into too many details but it’s going to be amazing. At the end of the day, my passion for the arts always arrives at the same question, "how do I make these people successful within the 21st century?" It has become a question of how do we figure out what the new art market model looks like?"

F-D: What do you think that answer is?

CB: I think it’s telling a better story. Learning how to take the skills you learned in school and figuring out how to making a living with them. For me, it was alway about using what I’ve learned and fitting into an enterprise based model. As arts professionals, we need to figure out how our practice and education can catch up with the needs of the landscape of industry and business. What we have at our disposal is our critical thinking skills. It’s really relevant to problem solving, and that in and of itself is how you get to the insights and how you get to the better story. You can change the conversation for a community or client. Not only do we need to reteach people how to understand and appreciate and value art, but in return art needs to be accessible and relevant. 

F-D: Does the history of the community or social issues affect exhibition selection?

CB: Not really, I’d say we focus on the convergence of contemporary art and design and how that informs an urban lifestyle.

F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to designing exhibitions or programs?

CB: It depends, in the gallery I focus on shows that reflect cultural trends or ideas that connect with urban art and life-styles. For examples, we did a show a couple of years ago called Soul, Sequins and Solid Gold. It was a photography show focused on celebrities, Studio 54 parties and New Hollywood era glam. We threw an outrageous party, invited people to rock their favorite disco wear and had Automagik play live. It was wild and we had a great time. On the other hand, when we parlay curation into our client/public projects it’s all about figuring out what the community wants or needs and then figuring out a creative solution. This could be a mural, a strategy for the neighborhood, a designed toolkit or a strategic partnership. It all depends on the nature of the project. 

F-D: What does having a physical space to show work within your community mean to you and how do you make it a useful, productive space for everyone?

CB: The gallery is our literal and physical connection to people and the community. It’s a non-traditional way of marketing BLDG while at the same time having a killer place to throw a dance party!

F-D: Do you see your space as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other galleries might your work be in conversation with?

CB: We want to inspire conversation and demonstrate how creativity can be a lifestyle. It’s about telling a different story about art, one that’s accessible and easy to understand. Our primary business is branding and design, what differentiates us is our connection to and deep understanding of contemporary art. We do a lot of work with different creative organizations in the area, like The Carnegie and the CAC. We also do all of the design work for the Cincinnati Art Museum.

F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as a curator you live by?

CB: Purveyors of dissonance. It’s part of our brand, it’s doing things that are a little bit in your face, and a little bit unexpected. It’s challenging people, whether its the community or your clients.

F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?

CB: That I’m a curator and a creative entrepreneur. For the most part I’ve always worked in small enterprise. It’s always been about following my creative passions in whatever it is that I do because then it never feels like work. 

F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?

CB: So there was this one time, when I was working for the city [of Covington]. The art program was part of the Department of Development for the city of Covington and Covington Arts had a gallery which is now Braxton Brewery. What I learned about municipal arts programs is that they are always under fire and facing budget cuts. When your looking at budget cuts and your up against police and fire [departments], for some it’s a challenge to understand why a city would support the arts with taxpayer money. But we knew what we had was a really well established and engaged program that people loved and supported. 

When Covington Arts came under fire, I began to advocate for the program and sent a letter to our supporters. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to do that and after a series of unfortunate circumstances my employer called me insubordinate in the news paper. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but after a number of years I’ve learned to advocate more effectively and laugh about the story.

F-D: Words of wisdom?... a motto, favorite quote?

CB: Kick ass and take names. Do what you love. Because then it never seems like work. Know that being a creative is a very viable option, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it work. 

F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about? 

CB: I’m working on a big project for a new brand of Hilton hotels that are coming to market this year. I’ve been curating a portfolio of artists and illustrators who can create mural concepts for their interiors. It’s a massive project and but I’ve had a blast researching new talent and making connections with artists, designers and illustrators across the country.